(Extract from a letter)
Dear Friend: You ask me what I have to say about the Acts of the Apostles, or the "Apostle-history," as it is sometimes called.
An interesting point is that until recently it was supposed that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts were written by Luke — a physician, a doctor, as we should say. This is based on a single remark "Luke the beloved physician." But it should not be forgotten that the Essenes, the Therapeutae, were "physicians" of the soul, also the first "Christians."
But the much quoted evidence that only a physician had the technical knowledge to write such a treatise or book can be equally applied to the assumption that both books were written by a sailor. Many years ago I worked on this idea, probably suggested by some remark of H. P. Blavatsky's in Isis Unveiled. Since then other scholars have come to the same conclusion.
But this disregards later research, which seems to show at least two writers for the Acts. Probably the sailor was one of them. And that sailor seems to have been no less a person than Marcion the Gnostic, practically the last in his day, somewhere about 135 A. D., who knew what the inner meaning of the church was. He was forced to leave it owing to political moves in the church government. After him, it was not much more than any other exoteric church or sect. He was a rich man, as riches went then, and his money would have been very useful if, as the intention was, they had elected him head or pope.
It has often been pointed out that the Acts is an artificial compilation, with the proof thereof in the long speech of the martyr Stephen — which of course nobody took down either in shorthand or longhand. It is simply a fine piece of rhetorical writing. Yes, they had shorthand writers in those days, often in teams of two, one to write quickly and the other to transcribe it in copper plate, so to say. But it needs much imagination to suppose that the scene was prepared beforehand, if indeed, it is historical at all and not like so much else, mystery narrative.
The purpose of the Acts seems fairly clear; at least, one purpose. The idea seems to have been to blend the more or less opposite currents of Petrine and Pauline history and teachings. You have the Peter history and then the Paul history, and the attempt at reconciliation is evident. It is hard to say how far this plan might have been carried, but the fact seems to be that the Acts is really an unfinished treatise.
It is difficult to imagine that the narratives are meant to be historical rather than artificial, though of course, there may be much history in them.
But look at Paul's own story. He is represented as being suddenly converted, violently converted, one may say, in a few hours. Dramatically this is fine, but it hardly happens in real life. His own tale is that he studied seventeen years, seemingly in seclusion in the Arabian desert, with one small exception about the third year, as he says in Galatians. This is much more plausible and reasonable.
Assuming that this view is correct, that the work is a technical mystical treatise and not historical, then we must pause before we accept the usual reports of the death of Paul and Peter as being historical. It is quite likely that Paul was never martyred at Rome at all. The Talmud makes him out to be a very old man indeed and a very vigorous one, years after the destruction of Jerusalem, while the Acts describe him as a man of middle age. I think the story of his martyrdom is based on a single obscure statement of some writer much later in the day who may or may not have known something about him. We are too prone to accept statements as historical simply because they are old and because they agree with orthodox views.
As for Peter, there seems to be no real evidence at all that he was ever at Rome. It is just a tradition. The Jewish writings, also much mixed with allegory and fancy, make him out to have died in exile at Babylon after living there for many years as an ascetic. One story seems to be as authoritative as the other. Of course, "Peter" as a mystical character and not historical, is simply the interpreter, as the Hebrew word Peter implies, between the mystic hierophant and the disciples. Joseph in Genesis (1) is Pharaoh's "Peter" or dream-interpreter. This is the character he occupied in the Roman mysteries long before "b. c. 1," and he was not any one man but an official. Speaking of the play of words so often found in these mystic writings, is it not curious that the church is founded, not on the Hierophant, the Teacher, but only on his interpreter?
I suppose the historical Paul was really a very interesting character and his life full of startling adventure. But it is not easy to sort out fact from fancy. If a film showed all the adventures attributed to him it would be regarded as impossibly fantastic, as a story no one man could ever have lived through.
H. P. Blavatsky makes a very interesting remark in her articles on "The Esoteric Character of the Gospels":
There are, besides great Initiates into scriptural symbology, a number of quiet students of the mysteries of archaic exotericism, of scholars proficient in Hebrew and other dead tongues, who have devoted their lives to unriddle the speeches of the Sphinx of the world-religions And these students, though none of them has yet mastered all the "seven keys" that open the great problem, have discovered enough to be able to say: "There was a universal mystery-language, in which all the World Scriptures were written, from Vedas to "Revelation," from the Book of the Dead to the Acts."
Serious scholars should think of this. It is the only way to reconcile the absurd discrepancy between the story of Paul in the Acts, and his own story as given in Galatians, unless we are to say that one is a pure forgery or fiction.
It was more H. P. B.'s work to give keys to study than to scatter facts indiscriminately. Here is such a key.
1. Gen., xli, 15. (return to text)